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Slave name

A slave name is the personal name given by others to an enslaved person, or a name inherited from enslaved ancestors. Modern use of the term applies mostly to Africans, African-Americans and West Indians descended from enslaved Africans who retain the name given to their ancestors by the enslavers.

Changing from a slave name to a name embodying an African identity became common after emancipation by those in the African Diaspora seeking a reconnection to their cultural roots.[1]

Ancient Rome

In Rome slaves were given single name by their owner. A slave who was freed might keep his or her slave name and adopt the former owner's name as a praenomen and nomen. As an example, one historian says that "a man named Publius Larcius freed a male slave named Nicia, who was then called Publius Larcius Nicia."[2]

Historian Harold Whetstone Johnston writes of instances in which a slave's former owner chose to ignore custom and simply chose a name for the freedman.[3]

Cape Colony

In the former Dutch colony that is present day Cape Town, slaves were named after the months in which they were purchased. This resulted in surnames such as Januarie and Februarie.

African-French and African-Portuguese

In France, the idea of slave names originated in Haiti in the West Indies,[4] an important centre of the French and European slave trade.

In the 15th century, the Cape Verde islands and the rivers of Guinea were among the first parts of Africa to be explored by the Portuguese. In 1446, Portugal claimed Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau), but few trading posts were established before 1600. By 1630, the Portuguese had settled and were governing the territory. By then Cacheu had become one of the main centres of the slave trade, which declined in the 19th century.

In 1600, Portugal and other European powers, including France, England, Sweden, Scotland, Spain, Brandenburg-Prussia, Denmark and the Netherlands set up a thriving slave trade along the West African coast.

In 1765, Bissau was founded as a military centre and slave-trading post. It grew to become the main commercial centre of the slave trade. The Portuguese used slave labour to grow cotton and indigo in the previously uninhabited Cape Verde islands. They traded goods and slaves in the Geba River estuary and slaves captured in local African wars and raids were sold in Europe and from the 16th century onwards, in the Americas.

Captured slaves were all given a slave name and in Europe many of their ancestors still bear this name. The name Gomis is associated with slavery in the history of Guinea-Bissau and its Manjack people. Bissau, a creole region, became known as The Slave Coast as the result of the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. Before that, slavery was not a significant feature of the coastal economy. The change occurred after the Portuguese reached this region in 1446. The surnames Gomis, Mendy, Preira, Correa, Dacosta, Monteiro and Vieira can all be traced back to Portuguese through the slave trade in the Casamance River region, governed at times by both Portugal and France.

For a brief period in the 1790s the British attempted to establish a rival foothold on the offshore island of Bolama, but many of the Manjaco and other communities became French after the abolition of the Slave trade in 1794 and 1848. It was not until January 1, 1860 that the Netherlands abolished slavery, and slaves in Dutch Guiana would have to wait until January 1, 1863 for the abolition of slavery.

Once freedom was restored their slave name won back dignity and respect. Today the slave name is given by baptism at birth or rebirth in the new world, where it represents the authenticity of one's identity and heritage, or lack thereof.

African Americans

Prior to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, the vast majority of African-Americans in the United States were enslaved. During enslavement, slaves' names were assigned by their owners. Others received a name based on what kind of work they were forced to do. Some African-Americans have last names such as Cotton, reflecting when they were made to pick cotton as slaves.[citation needed]

After emancipation, many freedmen and women took the surnames of their former owners as their own.[citation needed] Some blacks in the U.S. took on the surname Freeman, while others adopted the names of popular historical or contemporary figures of social importance, such as former presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson.

A number of African-Americans and Jamaican Americans have changed their names out of the belief that the names they were given at birth were "slave names." An individual's name change often coincides with a religious conversion (Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and Louis Farrakhan changed his from Louis Eugene Walcott, for example)[5][6] or involvement with the black nationalist movement (e.g., Amiri Baraka and Assata Shakur).[7]

Some organizations encourage African-Americans to abandon their "slave names." The Nation of Islam is perhaps the best-known of them. In his book, Message to the Blackman in America, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad writes often of "slave names." Some of his comments include:

  • "You must remember that slave-names will keep you a slave in the eyes of the civilized world today. You have seen, and recently, that Africa and Asia will not honor you or give you any respect as long as you are called by the white man’s name."[8]
  • "You are still called by your slave-masters' names. By rights, by international rights, you belong to the white man of America. He knows that. You have never gotten out of the shackles of slavery. You are still in them."[9]

Other organizations, such as the black nationalist US Organization, also advocate for African-Americans to change their "slave names."[10]

Kingdom of the Netherlands

Caribbean elements of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, like Aruba and the Dutch Antilles, and former colonies of the Netherlands, such as Suriname, have large Creole populations consisting mostly of the descendants of slaves.

When freed during the 19th century, the ancestors of these people received surnames that were given by their former owners, many of which referred to a specific character trait. For example Aruban governor Frits Goedgedrag's name is Dutch for "good behavior", whereas football player Edson Braafheid's name means "goodness".

Many kept these names, while others later chose their own. The new names were often in the local Spanish-based creole language, and subsequently changed to "proper" Spanish by Dutch officials. This explains why many Arubans and some Surinamese have Spanish surnames, but no Spanish ancestry.

See also


  1. ^ Molefi Asante on Slave Names and the importance of an African name
  2. ^ Roman Nomenclature at
  3. ^ Johnson, Harold Whetstone; Johnston, Mary; Names of Freedmen; 1903, 1932;
  4. ^ Roots
  5. ^ "Louis Farrakhan Biography". Database. Retrieved 2011-10-20. 
  6. ^ "Muhammad Ali Biography". Database. Retrieved 2011-10-20. 
  7. ^ Deburg, William L. Van, "Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan", NYU Press (1997), p 269, ISBN 0-8147-8789-4
  8. ^ Muhammad, Elijah; Message to the Blackman; Chapter 24;
  9. ^ Muhammad, Elijah; Message to the Blackman; Chapter 34;
  10. ^ "NGUZO SABA (The Seven Principles)" From : US Organization website [1]

External links